Materialism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The term materialism, derived from the Latin word materia (timber, matter), was coined about 1670 by the British physicist Robert Boyle (1627691). Its French equivalent, materialisme, was used probably for the first time by Pierre Bayle (1647706), although it was not yet listed in his famous Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). The German term Materialismus seems to have been introduced around 1700 by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646716). Since then it has been employed to denote any theory that considers all events in the universe to be sufficiently accounted for by the existence and nature of matter.
Historians of philosophy often distinguish between different versions of such theories: theoretical materialism, the philosophical doctrine according to which, in contrast to idealism, matter is the only substratum of all existence and all mental or spiritual phenomena are merely functions of it; psychological materialism, which claims that the soul or spirit of living organisms consists only of matter or is a function of physical processes; physiological materialism, according to which mental activities can be explained as biological processes; and dialectical materialism, or its variant historical materialism, which regards all important historical events as result of the economic developments of the human society. Finally, the term materialism is also used in the disapprobatory sense of denoting excessive desire for material goods and wealth.
Ancient Greek materialism
Following Friedrich Albert Lange's influential History of Materialism (1865), which opens with the statement that "materialism is as old as philosophy, but not older" (p. 7) many historians identify the beginning of materialism with the birth of Greek philosophy in the sixth century B.C.E. They regard Thales of Miletus, who is generally credited with having been the founder of Greek science, mathematics, and philosophy, as the first proponent of materialism. They claim that his well-known statement "all things are water" implies that water is the only and universal substratum of which all other bodies are merely modifications. Although Thales's specific choice of water as the fundamental matter did not satisfy his successors, his distinction between appearance and a reality that becomes comprehensible through the unifying function of reason was of lasting consequence for philosophical thought. His disciple, Anaximander of Miletus, replaced water by the more abstract apeiron, some kind of infinite and indistinct eternal matter to which everything that exists owes its being. Anaximander's disciple, Anaximenes, in turn called the fundamental cosmic matter "air" or "breath" claiming that air, when cooled, becomes vapor or mist, when rarified fire, and when condensed wind, cloud, water, earth, or stone. It should be noted, however, that at those early times matter and mind, or body and soul, were not sharply distinguished from one another so that the apparently purely material substratum included a spiritual ingredient. Some historians of philosophy prefer therefore to call these Ionian philosophers not materialists but hylozoist. The term hylozoism, derived from the Greek words for wood and life, means that there exists only matter, but this matter is animated, matter and life being inseparable.
A more authentic materialism is the atomism developed by Leucippus and elaborated by his disciple Democritus of Abdera who flourished about 400 B.C.E. They taught that there exist only empty space and atoms, which are indivisible, indestructible, and imperceptibly small particles of matter, differing in size and shape and moving in space. About a century later, Epicurus (34170 B.C.E.) adopted the Democritian theory of atoms as a mechanistic explanation of all phenomena and used it as the basis of his philosophical system, which became known as Epicureanism. The most influential expositor of Democritian materialism and Epicurianism was the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius of the first century B.C.E. In the six books of his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), he presented a materialistic explanation of mind, of soul, and of sensation, as well as of the phenomena of life, and thus taught the groundlessness of the fear of death and divine punishment since the event of death is merely the dispersion of the atoms.
Due to the facts that the Christian Fathers, like Tertullian (c. 160. 240 C.E.), Arnobius (253. 327 C.E.), or Lactantius (c. 250. 325 C.E.), rejected philosophy as a heathen product, and that since the thirteenth century Aristotelianism, which rejected atomism, dominated Western thought until the age of the Renaissance, materialistic theories were virtually anathematized prior to the seventeenth century. Their revival is attributed mainly to the empiricist Pierre Gassendi (1592655), a Catholic priest with orthodox views in theology, but nevertheless a staunch opponent of Scholastic Aristotelianism, and to the political writer Thomas Hobbes (1588679), the son of a clergyman. Gassendi revived Epicurean atomism but made it compatible with Christian doctrine by asserting that atoms are not eternal but have been created by God. In his Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, published in 1658, Gassendi developed an atomistic theory that extends over physics and psychology without denying the existence of divine providence. Hobbes started with the notions of space and time, which he regarded as correlatives of the primary attributes of body, namely extension and motion. The resulting system turned out to be a rigorously deterministic materialism. Since all that really exists is, according to Hobbes, material and extended, the human soul cannot be immaterial; even thought must be some kind of an action of bodies. Furthermore, since human beings and the society of human beings are but groupings of bodies, the laws of human behavior and of human societies must obey the laws of motion as they are known in physics.
France. Gassendi's revival of Democritean atomism served as the foundation of what became known as the French materialism of the eighteenth century. Its main representatives are Julien Offray de la Mettrie (also called Lamettrie) (1709751), Claude-drien Helvétius (1715771), Denis Diderot (1713784), Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach (1729789), and Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757808).
Lamettrie came in contact with the Dutch philosopher and iatromechanist Hermann Boerhaave (1668738), who claimed that all organic processes can be explained by the laws of the physical sciences. Influenced by Boerhaave, Lamettrie published in 1745 his Histoire Naturelle de l'Ame (Natural History of the Soul), in which he presented his views concerning the nature of matter, its relation to form, and its capacity for motion and for sensation. Since matter becomes a definite substance through form, which it receives from another substance, form can only be known in its combination with matter. Matter itself is endowed not only with motion; it also possesses the capacity of sensation. In his L'Homme machine (1648), Lamettrie accepted René Descartes's (1596650) view that animals are merely machines and that all intellectual phenomena that they display must be mechanically explainable. But he went further than Descartes when he argued that if an animal can feel and perceive without an immaterial soul due to its nervous and cerebral organization, there is no reason to assume that humans have spiritual souls. Since the laws of nature are the same for all that exists, plants, animals, and humans are subject to the same laws.
Lamettrie's books were publicly burned on account of their materialism and he had to flee to Berlin. Helvétius' work De l'Esprite, published in 1758, was also condemned by the Sorbonne as preaching a materialistic amorality and, like Lamettrie, Helvétius fled to Germany where he was received with high esteem. What Descartes was for Lamettrie, the French sensationalist Etienne Condillac (1715780) was for Helvétius. Following Condillac, according to whom all human faculties are reducible in essence to a sensory basis, Helvétius developed a materialistic philosophy on the fundamental assumption that all that people know they know only through the senses, and hence their ideas of deity, love, the soul, and so on, are merely modified forms of the objects that impress them in their daily material experience. Helvetius's materialism culminated with the conclusion that "enlightened self-interest is the criterion of morals."
Diderot, well known as the editor-in-chief of the French Encyclopédie, changed his views from an initial theism in which he was educated at a Jesuit school, through a period of deism, to an atheistic materialism. Diderot professed a biologically oriented materialism, since for him the entire universe is a perpetual circulation of life in which everything changes, evolution is a wholly mechanical process based on the laws of physics. In his Pensées sur l'Interprétation de la Nature (Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, 1754) he declared that the often pronounced view that body is in itself without action and without force is a monstrous error because "matter, but the nature of its essential qualities, whether it be considered in the smallest or largest quantities, is full of activity and force." The soul of the human being, who is part of nature, is not separate from body, and psychology is merely physiology of the nerves.
Holbach spent most of his life in Paris, where he wrote more than four hundred articles for the Encyclopédie. He is known chiefly as the author of the Système de la Nature, ou des Lois du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral (The System of nature, or the laws of the Moral and Physical world), published 1770. It has been called "the Bible of French materialism." It begins with the statement that although man imagines that there exists something beyond nature, all that exists is nature, and nature is nothing but matter and motion. Matter has always existed and has always been in motion. All particular things originate from matter by means of particular motions that are governed by unchangeable laws. Man, who is part of nature and as such a purely material being, only imagines that he has an immaterial soul. But all mental activity is in reality only some motion in the brain. Free activities or free will can not exist since all feelings, volitions, or thoughts are always subject to the eternal and unchanging laws of motion. Life is the sum of bodily motions and ceases when these come to an end. Holbach, more than any other materialist, stressed the point that materialism implies atheism. If there were a God, he argued, God would be located in nature, for there is nothing beyond nature; but if God were part of nature, God would be nothing but matter and motion. The idea of God, he concluded, is only a superstitious product of ignorance and desperation. Holbach even had no qualms to declare that the idea of God is the cause of all evil in society.
Cabanis, a friend of Holbach, was not always consistent in his philosophical writings, but judging from his principle work, Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme (On the Relation between the Physical and Moral aspects of man, 1802), he may be best characterized as having been a physiological, or even psychological, materialist. For, in his view, body and mind are not merely interacting with each other but are one and the same thing, and the human soul is matter endowed with feeling. The human being is simply a bundle of nerves, or as Cabanis phrased it, "Les nerfsoilà tout l'homme!" (The nerveshat's all there is to man). Sensibility and thinking have their foundation in physical processes; when impressions reach the brain, they cause it to act and to "secrete" thoughts just like the liver secretes bile.
England. Cabanis and French materialism in general exerted a lasting influence on later philosophical movements, like that of the so-called idealogues, represented by Destutt de Tracy (1754836), or the epiphenomenalists, like Thomas Henry Huxley (1825895). On the other hand, retrospectively viewed, Cabanis's conceptions of materialism had much in common with the earlier formulation of materialism by Thomas Hobbes. Still, Hobbes was one of the earliest materialists in modern philosophy. As stated in his De Corpore (1655), philosophy means to think, and to think means to combine or separate thoughts; hence the objects of philosophy are composable and decomposable objects or bodies. Pure spirits or God cannot be thought. Since human beings and human society are but grouping of bodies it should be possible to deduce the laws of the behavior of human individuals and societies from the laws of bodies, that is, from the definitions of space, time, force, and power. Geometry describes the movements of bodies in space; physics the effects of bodies upon each other; ethics the movements of nervous systems; and politics the effects of nervous systems upon each other.
Hobbes, like most other English materialists, in contrast to their French counterparts, did not consider atheism to be a logical implication of materialism. In fact, most English materialists reconciled materialism with religious belief. John Toland (1670722), for example, professed in Letters to Serena (1704) and in Pantheisticon (1710) an extreme materialism that, in his view, does not conflict with deism. A typical example of an English materialist is also the physician David Hartley (1705757), the founder of the Associationalist School of psychologists. In Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations (1749) he reduced the whole of human thought and sensation to physical vibrations of the brain.
The most famous example of the compatibility of English materialism with religious faith is Joseph Priestley (1733804), known to chemists as the discoverer of oxygen. Although sympathizing with Hobbes and proclaiming the materiality of the soul, Priestley served as a Unitarian minister and believed in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. As he emphasized in his Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit (1777), "there is nothing inconsistent with Christianity and the conception of the materiality of the human and divine soul."
Germany. In Germany a systematic philosophical materialism could gain ground only after the disintegration of the German idealism, which had culminated with Immanuel Kant (1724804) and collapsed with the death of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in 1831. Kant, in his influential Critique of Pure Reason (1781), condemned materialism, just like spiritualism, as utterly useless (untauglich) for any explanation of reality. So did Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762814), the philosopher of romantic idealism, and his disciple Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling, according to whom "God affirms himself in Nature." The rise of German materialism in the post-Kantian period received its chief motivation from the achievements of science. The synthesis of urea from cyanic acid and ammonia by Friedrich Wöhler (1880882) and of fructose and glucose from their chemical elements by Emil Fischer (1852919) shattered the traditional belief that organic matter could only be formed by vital processes. Hermann Helmholtz's (1821894) discovery of the conservation of energy in organic and inorganic systems, combined with the atomic theory and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, contributed decisively to the conception that life, mind, and consciousness are properties of energized matter. Thus, Jacob Moleschott (1822893) denied in his Der Kreislauf des Lebens (The Circularity of life, 1852) the existence of dead matter or of a matter-free force of life.
An extremely antireligious version of materialism was published in 1855 by Karl Vogt (1817895) in his Kohlerglaube und Wissenschaft (Implicit faith and science) as a sequel to his famous Göttingen controversy (1852) with the physiologist Rudolph Wagner (1805864), the so-called Materialismusstreit (Controversy about materialism), which raised wide public attention. Of greater influence, however, was Ludwig Buchner's (1824899) materialistic and atheistic book Kraft und Stoff (Force and matter) which, first published in 1855, appeared in more than twenty German editions and was translated into fifteen languages. A noteworthy example of the enormous influence that this book exerted, especially in Germany, is the fact that it prompted Albert Einstein (1879955) in his adolescence to abandon completely his erstwhile youthful religious enthusiasm.
Hegel's death marked the rise not only of this "vulgar materialism," so called because of its propagandist appeal to the broad masses, but also of the politically oriented dialectical materialism. The "left Hegelians," among them Karl Marx (1818883), opposed Hegelian idealism and reduced all its standards to human needs and human existence. Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820895) rejected the idealistic philosophy, which regards matter as dependent on mind or spirit, and developed instead a materialistic philosophy called dialectical materialism, according to which a materialistic reality is the substructure to all human social manifestations and institutions. Marx, in Das Kapital (1867), argued on the basis of a historico-sociological analysis of economics that what he called the "bourgeoisie" is no longer capable of coping with the changed conditions of production and must give room to the proletariat. It was mainly Engels who blended Marx's economical doctrine with philosophical materialism. According to Engels the philosophy of materialism is based on the three laws of dialectic: the law of contradiction, the turning of quantity into quality, and the negation of negation to specific logical and methodological problems. Engels's conception of dialectical materialism lies at the foundation of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's (1870924) Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (1919), which is his only work on philosophical principles and became the canon of the official philosophy of former Soviet Russia and modern China.
The challenge of physics
The conceptual foundations and scientific background of all materialistic systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the notion of matter as conceived by classical physics, that is, as Isaac Newton (1642727) described it, "matter formed in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles" and "mass" being its numerical measure. These particles, whether of atomic or macroscopic size, move through space according to the strict laws of mechanics. The development of modern physics in the first quarter of the twentieth century led to a radical modification, if not complete disintegration, of this classical framework, a process often characterized as the "dematerialization of matter." The traditional representation of atoms, for example, as minute billiard balls complying with the classical laws of motion proved incompatible with the principles of modern physics, which is based on the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein's famous mass-energy relation, for example, symbolized by E = mc2, and a simple consequence of the special theory of relativity, is often interpreted as expressing the convertibility of mass or matter into energy or inversely of energy into matter. Werner Heisenberg's (1901976) Uncertainty Principle, one of the axioms of quantum mechanics, whether interpreted as expressing the essential property of material particles never to have simultaneously a definite position and a definite velocity, or whether regarded as reflecting only a limitation on the measurement, as well as Louis de Broglie's (1892987) related principle of wave-particle duality, showed that the ontology of classical physics, on which those materialistic doctrines were grounded, can no longer be maintained. Quantum field theories, which have become the most important tools in understanding the microscopic world, suggest that matter is merely some arrangement of properties of space-time itself, all elementary particles being described as manifestations of quantum mechanical fields.
Modern physics thus presents a serious challenge to conventional materialism. Perhaps the most acceptable answer to this challenge has been given by the philosopher Herbert Feigl in his response to Norwood Russell Hanson's paper "The Dematerialization of Matter," published in 1962 in the periodical Philosophy of Science. "I grant," says Feigl, "the abstract, unvisualizable character of most physical concepts, classical or modern. But I insist that physics deals with happenings in spacetime, and that associated with those happenings there are aspects of mass, charge and motion which leave at least some characteristics of oldfashioned matter unaltered" (p. 569).
See also NATURALISM; SCIENTISM
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